Temperament and the Fear of Inequality

Those of you that are reading this but missed last week’s blog:  Innate temperament:  A terrifying idea? might want to go back and skim through it. For today, and at least the next two weeks, I want to explore Steve Pinker’s* views on this.  He suggests that we cling to the notion of the Blank Slate for one or more of four possible reasons.  The first is the “fear of inequality”, and he translates this as “If people are innately different, oppression and discrimination would be justified”.  The others are as follows:

The Fear of Imperfectability:  If people are innately immoral, hopes to improve the human condition would be futile.

The Fear of Determinism:  If people are the products of biology, free will would be a myth and we could no longer hold people responsible for their actions.

The Fear of Nihilism: If people are the products of biology, life would have no higher meaning and purpose.

Today I just want to think about the “Fear of Inequality”.  In some ways it seems like the most perplexing of the four.  In my experience, most people are not terribly bothered by the fear that others who are similar in ethnicity, religion, political beliefs etc. are also better, brighter, wiser or more gifted than themselves.  We may long for talents that we do not have, envy others, and really get down on ourselves if we don’t seem to have any compensating strong points, but fear does not seem to be the right word for this, for most people.

Recall the Larry Summers debacle at Harvard.  In addressing a large group of very talented faculty at a workshop on increasing faculty diversity, he was discussing the relative lack of women faculty in science and engineering areas and said “….that in the special case of science and engineering, there are issues of instrinsic aptitude, and particularly of the variability of aptitude….”  In the end, he was dismissed as President of Harvard because these words were deeply offensive. One female faculty woman found herself on the verge of fainting and left the room in a rage.  She, herself, was not in question.  Having been hired by one of the finest universities in America, and as one of very few women considered for such a position, her own qualifications should not have been in doubt.  And yet, the idea that her gender, not herself, might be less talented in these highly specialized areas than the other gender, was extraordinarily threatening.

Thus the fear of inequality seems to be a fear about differences between our in-group and their in-group, or yet other in-groups, that we may have no personal involvement in.  Most of us seem to grow up with some sort of notion of where we fall in most areas.  We are bright or average, athletically skilled or down right klutzy, good-natured or critical.  The portrait may not be quite what others see, but close enough to use in making our way in the world.  Most of us are not overwhelmed by the fact that the world is full of people who are collectively better than we are in practically everything  What Summers said, in effect, was that at the very top of the heap–at the elite world of Harvard,  MIT, Cal Tech, etc. more men than women show simply extraordinary talent.  (Average male-female aptitudes are quite equivalent;  the problem, if it exists, is only among the top 1% or 0.5%). You would think that women could graciously allow men that small achievement.  But no.

That brings us back to the fact that this fear of inequality is a fear of inequality between groups.  This is really hard to think about because it is tangled up in two unanswered questions.  The first is whether there is any innate, biologically given inequality that exists between groups.  This is an unresolved issue and it is, for now a minefield of amazing proportions.  Whether you suggest as Neel and Chagon did, that some tribal peoples may have a genetically driven increase in violent behavior, or with Summers that there really are some innate aptitude differences between the sexes, or as John Watson did, that differences in racial or ethnic groups in measured IQ may have a genetic basis–it can be a career breaker to speak of it, no matter how famous and successful you may have been before you crossed this line.  And yet, from a geneticist’s point of view it is not all that unlikely that there are some innate differences. Among the statements that produced so much trouble for Watson, was this:  “There is no firm reason to anticipate that the intellectual capacities of peoples geographically separated in their evolution should prove to have evolved identically….Our wanting to reserve equal powers of reason as some universal heriage of humanity will not make it so.”

Of course, Watson’s saying that it is not so, does not make it so either.  At the end, we are left without a clear answer to the first question, that is, are there meaningful differences between racial, ethnic or gender-based groups.

The second question then becomes–if there are such innate differences, or if there are not, but we allow a large portion of the population to believe that such differences exist, what then?  What effect will that have on equal justice, on the respect of one group for another, and on the reestablishment of the 20th century horrors that were represented by totalitarian movements in fascism and communism?  Is that the inevitable road to a new Holocaust?  If the answer to that possible outcome is yes, and answer to whether group differences are real is yes, then is the only answer a permanent taboo on truth? Is that even possible?

The point, here, however, is that between group differences are very small compared to the whole range of differences found within any group. All of that means that group stereotype tells you very little in predicting IQ for any individual from any group. Every group has highly able people and desperately unable people. This means that any sort of “fear” of group inequality is not a fear of whether a given group has many people of talent within it. It is a fear of something else, and Pinker spells it out when he says that it is a fear that “If people are innately different, oppression and discrimination would be justified”.  That is, it is a fear of returning to Naziism or some equivalent.  This cannot be justified as an unfounded or trivial fear.  If group differences are real, or, whether real or unreal, if enough people come to believe in such differences,  and begin to blame social problems on them, the risk of a new, 21st century catastrophy is ever with us.

I certainly do not know the pathway out of this.  We have an official and public policy, throughout the Western world, that says that racial, ethnic, and gender differences do not exist, and that suggesting that they do is bigotry of a very serious nature.  We also have earnest researchers who believe that such differences do exist, as well as private individuals who murmur their doubts to one another.  If the doubters prove to be correct, then what? Keeping a cap on that from here to eternity sounds almost as dangerous as turning the information loose.

Toward the end of Pinker’s chapter on The Fear of Inequality, he looks at the Blank Slate/No Blank slate philosophies of Nazi Germany and of Communism from Marx and Engels to Mao Zedong. He finds that the underlying views of human nature are polar opposites and yet produced equally totalitarian regimes.  From Marx on there was at least an implicit view that human nature was the product of social circumstances.  Capitalism produced the bourgeois beast, because human beings were essentially socially constructed. Pinker quotes Marx as saying “All history is nothing but a continuous transformation of human nature.”  Moving up centuries to Mao, Pinker finds this perfect embodiment of the blank slate: “A blank sheet of paper has no blotches, and so, the newest and most beautiful words can be written on it, the newest and most beautiful pictures can be painted on it.” He also offers this slogan from the Khmer Rouge: “Only the newborn baby is spotless.”

Hitler, of course, started out with the opposite assumption.  Rather than individuals born as Blank Slates, he saw very strong inherent differences existing between races.  The “master” race was Aryan–largely Germanic in origin.  All other “races” (translate this to ethnic groups) fell along a descending heirarchy of qualities, with those who were Jewish at the very bottom, so corrupt as to require extermination in order to save the Aryan master race. And yet, both Hitler’s National Socialism and Communism, produced a powerful human motivating force–in group, out group hatred.  Easy to see in Germany,  but in Communism?  Pinker explains it this way.

“if people do not differ in psychological traits like talent or drive, then anyone who is better off must be a avaricious or larcenous… Massive killing of kulaks and “rich” or “bourgeois” peasants was a feature of Lenin’s and Stalin’s Soviet Union, Mao’s China, and Pol Pot’s Cambodia…If the mind is  structureless at birth and shaped by its experience, a society that wants the right kind of minds must control the experience….If people are shaped by their social environments then growing up bourgeois can leave a permanent psychological stain…. The descendents of landlords and “rich peasants” in postrevolutionary regimes bore a permanent stigma and were persecuted as readily as if bourgeois parentage were a genetic trait.”  The history of the 20th century testifies that both the belief in inherent human differences, and the belief in the Blank Slate (coupled with a powerful belief in the power of the social environment) can lead to mass genocide.

The fear of looking openly at possible group differences is real and meaningful. It has a fierce potential to do mischief;  we are not wrong in being afraid of it,  but the attempt to suppress information , opinion and science itself, surely is not the answer.

Next week:  The Fear of Imperfectabilty


Pinker, Steven (2002).  The Blank Slate:  The Modern Denial of Human Nature.  New York: Viking.


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